The region’s political leaders met in federal court in downtown Detroit Tuesday afternoon to announce a water deal hailed as “historic,” because for the first time, according to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, this is a deal that makes sense for the region.
The deal, if approved by Detroit and the legislative bodies of the various counties, will end the decades-old stalemate that has clouded conversations around creating a regional water system that effectively serves all of the counties whose residents benefit from Detroit’s water. The deadline to approve the deal is October 10. Mayor Duggan has promised an aggressive community outreach effort to educate residents about the plan.
At the heart of the deal will be the creation of a Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) to service the regional assets of the water, while the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department remains under the control of the city. According to the plan, each county will have an appointee on the authority, the governor will have one appointee and Detroit will have two appointees. But a total of five votes out of the six will be required for a majority decision.
“There has been 40 years of conflict between the city of Detroit and the suburbs over the water. The water department has been in litigation in this building since 1977,” Duggan said in federal court during a press conference. “Each year we have 2000 water main breaks in the city of Detroit. Detroit will maintain control of our local water and sewer system.”
The mayor said it is only “fair” that other residents in the various counties who are paying into the system have a voice on the authority and how the future of the regional assets are decided and managed to the benefit of all water users of DWSD. DWSD will retain 500 workers under this new proposal and 900 workers will work for the authority. All collective bargaining rights will be maintained for all workers and nothing will change, according to Duggan.
Also under the regional proposal, about $4.2 million will be set aside annually as part of an affordability plan to help struggling residents in all four counties pay their water bills and avoid what happened in Detroit this year when draconian water shutoffs gave the city a black eye, attracting the attention of the United Nations and the international media.
Wayne County’s Ficano said the deal is a “win for the city of Detroit,” in light of the fact that the future of DWSD was always talked about in the context of privatizing the system. He said the fact that no privatization is taking place in this new plan underscores what all four leaders can do when they are committed to solving one of the most intractable issues in the region.
“This is very similar to the process we went through to establish the authority that now runs Cobo Hall. A lot of people said it couldn’t be done. It took all of us coming together to do what’s in the best interest of the region and we negotiated an agreement that will protect ratepayers and add fiscal responsibility and transparency to the system,” Ficano said.
Patterson, who has been perhaps the most vocal on water issues in the region, said the current deal hatched by all four leaders gives his county residents and water ratepayers a voice.
“My residents have always had a real problem with us being in the minority position. This deal protects the interest of our ratepayers,” Patterson said. “The super majority (five votes to make a decision) is very good protection for my rate payers.”
Patterson said in the past Oakland County’s 1.2 million residents have always looked at DWSD as a cash cow for Detroit.
“Under this new authority rates can be increased for only four percent. That’s barely the rate of inflation,” Patterson explained.
Hackel of Macomb County said the new plan now is a lot different from what has been offered in the past, and like Oakland County, his Macomb ratepayers have been concerned about the management of the water system and their input in a system that benefits them as well.
“We want to make sure we have a stronger voice,” Hackel said.